For college students enrolled in science-based courses, ‘Research Methods’ classes can often be something of a mixed bag. The same is true for Research Methods textbooks. And I feel I should know. As I work professionally (so to speak) in this area, I get sent samples of such textbooks by publishers every other week. Now I’m not saying I could do any better, but commonly these textbooks seem to me to be characterised by a certain, well, oddness.
Not unusually, the authors will try to jazz up their otherwise mundane spiel by offering some zany or exciting practical exercises for the kids to enthuse over.
Here’s one of the WTF-est such exercises I’ve encountered recently:
Using your favorite search engine on the Web, look up “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” (if you do not know of any search engine, go to http://www.google.com). Now take a look at several of the hits that the search has found. Consider the merits of the documents on each of the sites. Does the material seem biased? Does the material sound reasonable? How heavily would you rely on this information in a report or research?
This is something of a slow burner (note to self: consider rephrasing). Let me pick out some highlights. All you have to bear in mind is that this text is aimed at college/university-level students — in other words, at fully grown and sentient adult human beings — who are purported to be embarking on a research-based course of study:
…your favorite search engine…
…if you do not know of any search engine…
Does the material [from the Ku Klux Klan] seem biased?
Call me naive if you want, but personally I would expect most students to come equipped with a pre-installed awareness of stuff like Google, not to mention the capital-W “Web” as a whole (I’m thinking the author was unsure whether to say “Web” or “Information Superhighway“). But maybe that’s just the students I have.
As for the whole Ku Klux Klan bit, well I’m willing to accept that some students will be genuinely flummoxed as to whether or not the material generated in those search results might be somehow biased. I mean, when I ran the search myself, the first paragraph of the first page of the first-ranked hit read as follows:
There is a race war against whites. But our people — my white brothers and sisters — will stay committed to a non-violent resolution. That resolution must consist of solidarity in white communities around the world. The hatred for our children and their future is growing and is being fueled every single day…
Hmmm. Does that seem biased to you?
I guess I’m just wondering what such an exercise is intended to achieve. After all, the idea here is to train people in ‘Research Methods’. I fully appreciate that it’s good for students to reflect on how published material can often lack a certain objectivity. I also think it is valuable for students to learn how to critique published works carefully, rather than relying on a quick face-value judgement.
But students who are astute natural researchers will surely find the task of picking holes in the KKK’s pronouncements a little on the easy side. It’s the students who find the task difficult that I worry about. Such an exercise simply encourages them to look for the bright side of what the Ku Klux Klan have to offer. The next thing you know these students will have developed sufficient argumentation skills to help them deny the scientific consensus on evolutionary theory or the safety of MMR vaccines.
And I really don’t think that’s what the author had in mind.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.